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Nation at Your Fingertips, The

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Nation at Your Fingertips, The

Published 1951

How direct long distance dialing made the U.S. a smaller place, and how instantaneous direct communication between Americans without operator assistance became possible.

Run time 10:19
Producer Audio Productions, Inc.
Sponsor American Telephone and Telegraph Co. (AT&T), Bell System
Audio/Visual Sd, B&W


Visible lines of transportation -- rivers, roads and rails -- traverse the landscape and enable the movement of people, freight and information in its physical form. In the mid-nineteenth century the invention of the telegraph split off the movement of information from the transportation of tangible things, and for the first time information moved reliably and almost instantaneously. Telegraph lines followed the railroads and became the means by which movements of freight and people was supervised and coordinated. In the latter part of the century, telephones were installed, first in cities, later in towns, and finally between centers of population. By 1915 the first coast-to-coast telephone call was placed, and in fifteen more years it was possible to phone across the Atlantic by radio. Radio itself became a practical medium of communication in the 'teens and by the end of the twenties was edging out print as a vehicle for mass entertainment and information. Everything transported by wires and waves was invisible and intangible; their paths hardly resembled dramatic landscape alterations like railroads and highways.
But even as communications technology slowly began to inscribe an invisible communications infrastructure across the country, the technology continued to demand the presence of many attendants and was generally available only by appointment and at considerable cost, affordable only to a relatively small portion of the population. With the introduction of consumer long distance dialing on an experimental basis in 1951, it suddenly became possible for telephone customers to operate this complex communications system without the assistance or intervention of others. The reduction in labor cost later made possible dramatic reductions in the cost of toll calls.
Although the shift away from a landscape defined predominantly by physical distance between people and resources had been occurring for some time, the availability of direct distance dialing, as shown in The Nation at Your Fingertips, opened up "virtual space" for masses of consumers. For the first time ever, ordinary individuals could conduct business, maintain contacts, and pursue relations with others at a great distance, assisted by automated equipment. A new electronic landscape opened for the use of the many rather than the few. Though this electronic landscape superimposed itself upon the tangible landscape, its convenience and the needs that it could fulfill tended to render the tangible landscape much less relevant. "Go ahead, call her. You'll feel better," says John to his worried wife, anxious about a sick grandchild.
When we speak today of "cyberspace" and "virtual culture" we are talking about a virtual landscape, based on the availability of automated instantaneous electronic contact, a landscape whose roots extend back to direct distance dialing. And when we assess the extravagant claims that are being made for "revolutionary" new technologies and how these technologies will change the way we live and work, we might well examine them in the light of the true history of the telephone, which has indeed helped to bring about great changes.

Ken Smith sez: This film shows us some of the happy phone customers of Englewood, NJ, the first town in the world to have long distance direct dial phone service. What this film fails to mention is that long distance direct dial service could have been introduced years earlier, but that it had to wait until Ma Bell could invent automatic billing machines to keep tabs on its operator-independent customers. "The equipment that makes this possible is among the most complex that Man has ever devised!"

[The Nation at Your Fingertips main titles graphic design A Bell System film. Western Electric recording.]
Across the Hudson River from New York City, and westward into the state of New Jersey, is the city of Englewood. [New York City East River rivers tugboats skylines skyscrapers Wall Street George Washington Bridge]
Englewood could be any one of hundreds of American communities, population 25,000, Main Street with busy stores, banks and movie theaters, attractive suburban homes with their neat lawns and their well-groomed look. [streetlights streetlamps main streets houses children towns buses suburbs automobiles cars]
In size and in the kind of people who live here, Englewood is like many other American towns. And that was one of the reasons it has became the first town in the world to have an unusual kind of telephone service. [children suburbia postal workers mailmen postmen jumping rope girls games]
"Oh, I'll go see who it is." "You finish your coffee, John, I'll answer it. Probably the mailman." [Ring doorbells married couples]
"John, it's from Sally. She says the baby has the measles. Oh dear." "Well now, measles, that's not so serious. All kids get 'em sooner or later." "John Warren, you know Ruthie's only 14 months old. Poor little dear. I'm worried." "Well if you're worried, why don't you call her up? [letters worries worry anxiety diseases sickness illness relatives grandchildren babies]
You've got her number in that little book of yours. It's just about 8 o'clock in San Francisco, they'll be up." "You know, I believe I will." "Go ahead, call her, you'll feel better."
"3-1-8-G-A-5-2-3-6-8. Are you sure it isn't too early out there?" "Oh no, it's 11 o'clock here, that means it's 8 o'clock out there." "Hello? Sally? Sally, this is mother." [telephones address books time zones area codes dials dialing sound effects ENglewood 3-4386]
Simple, wasn't it? She just picked up her telephone and dialed her daughter in San Francisco, California. In a matter of seconds, she is talking with her. [conversation]
Simple, and yet you are seeing the results of many, many years of coordinated effort in research, engineering and operating experience.
It's hard for us to realize today that in the early 1880s the telephone was considered a newfangled contraption. [historical recreations couples wall telephones]
Boy operators manned the switchboards in those days, and it was an adventure to be able to talk to friends or relatives on the other side of town. [male operators men at work]
The telephone at last was filling a deep human need, the need of people, separated from one another, to talk with each other. Soon, alert girl operators replaced the boys. [women workers transmitters gizmos ergonomics human-machine interfaces headsets]
New types of instruments were developed, and the telephone grew up with a growing America.
The demand for telephone service snowballed. Indeed the use of the telephone became so tremendous, that by the 1920s, dial service was rapidly being introduced to help handle the increased volume of calls. [operators dials optical effects surrealism dialing frames switchboards central offices step-by-step switches]
As the calls increased, more operators were needed. More calls to handle meant more jobs to do, and more people to fill those jobs. [clerical workers women workers offices desks]
This has been the story all through the development of the telephone. For instance, in the days when we had little or no dial service, the Bell system had two hundred and seventy thousand employees. [business offices traffic employees construction linemen telephone poles trucks information operators directory assistance poles safety belts repairmen installers]
By the time seventy percent of the telephones were dial, there were six hundred thousand employees, more than twice as many. But the remarkable use of the telephone was only part of the story of change in American life. [switchmen accounting employees revolving doors buildings entrances]
As villages became towns, and towns became industrial cities, people's interests broadened. Where those early citizens were thrilled to telephone across town, people now wanted to call towns and cities across the nation. [horses carriages streets traffic plugs jacks Miami Augusta Kansas City Hartford West Palm Beach Toledo Seattle Syracuse Salt Lake City Memphis Chattanooga Indianapolis Nashville St. Petersburg Pottstown Pottsville Tulsa]
Finally, they wanted their voices to span the oceans, and they did. Truly, America had grown up. All of which brings us back to Englewood. [London Amsterdam Brussels international operators New York City New York harbor]
From many of Englewood's telephones, you could already dial anyone of more than four million other telephones in the surrounding territory. A fine example of modern telephone service, and therefore a fine proving ground for this new type of long distance service. [monuments traffic rotaries traffic circles telephone buildings trees New Jersey Bell Telephone Company Bell System plaques]
A proving ground to answer such questions as: Will customers like the service? Will they find it easy to use? What improvements can be made? [executives supervisors planners meetings]
This first installation now enables telephone users to dial their own long distance calls as well as their local calls and calls to nearby communities. [frames switchboards switches technicians engineers]
The equipment that makes this service possible is among the most complex that man has ever devised. When you dial a number, the equipment obediently receives the information, stores it up, and remembers it. [storage relays]
It searches out an electrical pathway for your call, choosing the one that is most suitable at a given instant. If it finds one pathway blocked, it tries another, and another, and another. [frames]
If it runs into trouble, it automatically reports the trouble, and its probable source. Parts of the equipment, connected with other parts, exchange information. [trouble tickets dropping a card lights]
They do this sometimes by a touch system, such as the blind use in reading Braille. Sometimes it's done with a stream of electrons, flowing through space. Sometimes it uses an elaborate system of musical notes, played in chords that are heard and interpreted by a mechanical ear. [multifrequency tones MF tones multifrequency generators vacuum tubes electronic components]
But even that's not all of it. Keeping track of the details of the call is done automatically, too. When you dial a number, holes are punched in a continuous tape, representing your telephone number and the number you dialed. [computerized automatic message accounting CAMA toll billing]
More holes are punched to show the time when you start talking, and when you finish talking, and hang up. If you get a busy signal, or the number doesn't answer, no charge is made. [paper tape storage medium]
Since all this information is in the form of tiny holes in a long piece of paper, the meaning of these tiny holes has to be expressed in words and figures.
This is done by running the tape through several machines, which assemble the information, translate, sort and summarize it, figure the length of your call, apply the correct rate, and, you guessed it, type your toll statement. [computers IBM punched cards tabulating cards tab cards card readers printers women workers clerical workers]
But for the Englewood telephone user, it's as easy as dialing a local call. Remember that number Mrs. Warren looked up in her personal telephone notebook? 318, GArfield 5, 2368.
The only difference between that and a local number is the three digits at the beginning. 318 is the code for the San Francisco area. If her daughter had lived in Chicago, Mrs. Warren would have dialed the code 312 and then the telephone number. [area codes NPAs Numbering Plan Areas maps NANP North American Numbering Plan United States infrastructure]
Cleveland, 216. Boston, 617. Altogether, more than 80 numbered areas are planned for the United States and parts of Canada.
For some time past, area numbers like these have been used by telephone operators in dialing long distance calls.
When the people in the Englewood area with one- and two-party lines were given this service, they could dial to thirteen of these areas.
That meant that more than eleven million telephones could be dialed from Englewood. When will the eleven million be able to dial Englewood? [animation question marks]
And what about the remaining millions of telephones in the Bell system? The answer lies in the future.
But this much we do know. Over the years, we have seen the results of a successful formula. Planned research to anticipate the demands of a growing nation, available resources, plus the continued efforts of many people. [telephone workers]
This combination has given America steady improvements in telephone service. And the story of long distance dialing points the way to even better telephone service for you tomorrow.
[American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and associated companies, Bell System. Audio Productions, Inc., New York, N.Y.]The End. end titles graphic design]

Telephones Long-distance dialing Communication Landscape Area Codes Maps Graphics Numbering Plan Areas (NPAs ) Bell System Englewood, New Jersey New York City (skylines) Main streets Engineers Technicians Data processing Punched paper tape Computers Dials


Reviewer: JSBejma - favoritefavoritefavorite - January 12, 2015
Subject: Englewood New Jersey
Hardly a "typical" town in the US at mid century. Quite wealthy, in fact. Average income was well into the highest 20%.

Love that metal box contraption hanging from that operator's neck. Too bad she couldn't disability.

A standard Bell PR film. One wonders who was supposed to watch this?

Reviewer: ERD - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - April 3, 2006
Subject: Polished documentary
A very well down documentary by the Bell telephone company of 1951. Informative and historically interesting.
Reviewer: library100 - favorite - June 17, 2004
Subject: direct distance dialing
i love this film very much because of the introduction of direct distance dial which i can diall long distance withourt operator
Reviewer: Spuzz - favoritefavoritefavorite - November 20, 2003
Subject: What happens when Jimmy gets the measles?
A pretty interesting overview of the advances that phone technology was making, especially when it came to long distance services. We see what is availible now, mainly just operators routing calls. But they were just starting to introduce operator-free technology that would route your call through wires, and use this new fangled thing called the 'area code' to help route it.
Reviewer: Markus Stamm - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - December 25, 2002
Subject: Technologically interesting with minor historic inaccuracy
This film provides technologically very interesting insight into the history of long-distance telephone services.

However, the statement that the pepole of Englewood were the first in the world to use consumer direct distance dialling in the early 1950s is inaccurate. The first fully automatic network group spanning multiple areas was put to operation as early as 1923 in Weilheim (Upper Bavaria, Germany), the next automatic long-distance groups were installed in Switzerland (1925) and The Netherlands (1927). By the mid-1930s, direct distance dialling was available in more and more German cities.

Since this earlier technology was based on step-by-step dialling equipment (used in Germany until 1996) as opposed to the cross-bar switches used in the US, this movie offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of technology not widely used in Europe.
Reviewer: Christine Hennig - favoritefavoritefavorite - November 19, 2002
Subject: The Nation at Your Fingertips
This early 1950s film introduced the country to the concept of direct long-distance dialing, by showing how residents of Englewood, New Jersey, the city where the first experimental direct dial program was installed, were able to call across the country without an operator. Like many Bell System films, it's very conscious of the telephone's history and how it changed with the timesÂÂwe get to see a Victorian couple shouting into an old wall-mounted phone, scurrying young male operators (the first ones were male), and an early female operator wearing a bizarre huge early headset. What's really interesting about this film, though, is the glimpse into the past we get from seeing a currently commonplace technology when it was first being introduced. Bell's automated switching system as described sounds very computer-like, and the description of how it searches for an open pathway to route the call through sounds eerily like how the internet works. An interesting historical relic.
Ratings: Camp/Humor Value: **. Weirdness: ***. Historical Interest: *****. Overall Rating: ***. Also available on Our Secret Century, Vol. 6: The Uncharted Landscape.
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